Beneath: Film Review

Jonny Orsini, Daniel Zovatto, Chris Conroy and Griffin Newman in "Beneath"
A killer seafood bloodbath with delusions of psychological complexity.

Director Larry Fessenden strands six freshly graduated high schoolers on a flimsy boat circled by a hungry monster fish in this Chiller Films feature.

There’s definite potential in the idea of indie art-horror auteur Larry Fessenden tipping his hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat with an allegorical teens-in-peril creature feature that explores the monstrous extremes of human behavior under the influence of isolation and fear. But Beneath gets capsized as much by its knuckleheaded script as by its somewhat risible giant flesh-eating fish. Even genre schlock requires a minimum of psychological credibility, and when the word “Unbelievable!” echoes loudly from the mouth of one persistent survivor across the eerie lake setting, few will disagree.

In darkly atmospheric features like Wendigo and The Last Winter, Fessenden has worked from his own screenplays. This time, however, he’s stuck trying to breathe intelligence into a formulaic script by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith that had been kicking around the offices of Chiller. Perhaps as a sign that it wants to be in business with indie filmmakers, the shocker network is giving Beneath a simultaneous theatrical/VOD release prior to its air date.

Fessenden opens with a winking nod to Jaws before getting down to the onerous business of setting up the generic characters and situation. Fresh from high school graduation, six friends head out to Black Lake to party. Danger is suggested by a newspaper clipping about the body of water, headed: “Hoax or Hex?” Likewise, the brooding apprehension of Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), a soulful Johnny Depp type with a bandana and a gnarly razor tooth he carries on a necklace like a protective talisman.

Just in case the notes of dread were insufficiently clear, Mr. Parks (Mark Margolis), a creepy old friend of Johnny’s grandpa, warns him, “Bad idea going out on the lake with … kids like those.” Johnny knows he’s right but promises to keep them out of the water in what is meant to be a quick rowboat crossing to the other side with a cargo of booze and fireworks.

Johnny’s chief concern is for the safety of the regrettably named Kitty (Bonnie Dennison), a flirty blonde who has a romantic hold on just about all the other characters. She’s officially dating alpha male Matt (Chris Conroy), a former star athlete whose path to greatness may have hit a roadblock. But she’s also on the receiving end of swooning looks from Matt’s more academically gifted brother, Simon (Jonny Orsini), as well as her gal-pal Deb (Mackenzie Rosman), who wistfully recalls, “that time in summer camp…”

The only member of the posse not madly crushing on Kitty is the insufferable geek, Zeke (Griffin Newman), who -- wouldn’t you know it? -- is an aspiring filmmaker. Even in the hairiest moments, he persists in recording the events of the trip on a wrist-cam. Mercifully, this is not another first-person found-footage horror movie, so that tired device intrudes only minimally. But Fessenden and the predator that lurks in Black Lake both show a sense of humor that’s otherwise in short supply by sparing the camera from the general carnage.

Of course Johnny’s earnest entreaties don’t stop the cool kids from taking a dip, and of course that means it’s snack time for their underwater foe. The director’s biggest mistake is perhaps showing this creature too early (or at all), given that it looks like a silly prehistoric bug-eyed catfish. Once we’ve caught a glimpse of it, the thrills are pretty much neutralized.

There’s some mild meta amusement in Zeke’s response to his friends’ initial skepticism: “Have you ever seen the movie Shark Night 3D? It’s exclusively about sharks in lakes!” But otherwise there’s little evidence of the film being in on the joke. Given that Zeke has done his horror homework, it seems inconceivable that he, let alone everyone else, doesn’t think it shows poor judgment to leave someone’s bleeding arm dripping into the water.

Things become marginally more intriguing once the crew lose their oars and start voting sacrificial decoys off the leaking boat as they paddle toward the shore, which inexplicably never seems to get any closer. Simmering high school grudges, sibling rivalries, romantic betrayals and good old-fashioned nerd intolerance factor into the survival stakes. But the dialogue is so preposterous, the characters so unlikable and the cast so undistinguished that tension is almost entirely absent. The question of who’s next on the fish-food menu becomes one of diminishing importance, though personally, I would have voted off that manipulative slut Kitty first.

Beneath is efficiently shot, edited and scored, but the best thing about it is the cool poster, which shows how unsettling understatement can be. Otherwise it’s another of those depressing examples of bad movies happening to interesting directors.

Opens: Tuesday, July 16 (Chiller Films)

Cast: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jonny Orsini, Griffin Newman, Mackenzie Rosman, Mark Margolis

Production companies: Glass Eye Pix, in association with OffHollywood Pictures

Director: Larry Fessenden

Screenwriters: Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith

Producers: Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok

Executive producers: Thomas P. Vitale, Shane O’Brien, Justin Smith

Director of photography: Gordon Arkenberg

Production designer: Tania Bijlani

Music: Will Bates

Editor: Larry Fessenden

Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola

No rating, 90 minutes.

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